June 23, 2014
EAST LANSING, Michigan - As a coach, there is no better reward than getting to see your players reach their dreams. For Tom Izzo, he has seen 13 of his former players realize their dreams of being selected in the NBA Draft. And for the better part of the last two months, three of his more recent players have chased the dream of adding to that total, as Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne are each hoping to hear their name called at the NBA Draft on Thursday, June 26.
"I always say that when you get a chance to live your dream, that's a special day," said Izzo. "I feel like that's happened to me coming here. I don't think a lot of people in the world get to actually live their dream, but I think these guys will.
"When you recruit them, you talk about it and to watch that come to fruition, it will be a proud moment for me too. I just had a very small piece in this thing, as their parents did, as they did and other people that touched their lives. To be a part of the final part is a special and bonding moment for a coach. I'm looking forward to being in New York and seeing it happen. "
The NBA pre-draft combine camp was held in mid-May. And since then, the three Spartans have crisscrossed the country, flying from one NBA workout to another in hopes of improving their draft stock. Despite the miles, they are thankful to have this opportunity.
"(The process) is fun, then it can be stressful because of all the traveling, and just being anxious with not knowing where you are going to go," said Harris. "It can be tough at times, but just being able to have this opportunity, you have to enjoy the process because you only go through it once."
"It's a grind, especially working out every day," said Payne. "You don't get any time off, so we really try to take care of our bodies, getting massages and stretching a lot. That's what we do - get in the cold tub and try to keep our bodies right."
"It is definitely somewhat tiring because of all the travel, but it has been a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Appling. "You only get to go through this process once, so I am just trying to make the most of it. To me, it feels like I'm still just playing the game."
Appling, Harris and Payne have grown up loving basketball, and have each played it since a young age. To them it's still a game, but they also understand that there is a lot riding on these workouts.
"It's a game that I love to play, but it's just a process that I've never been through," explained Payne. "It just feels a little different. There are a lot of people watching you now when you go to workouts, analyzing your game to see if they want to get you. You've just got to go out and perform the best you can."
That means approaching the process as a job interview.
"Everything you're doing is being judged, and you just want to treat it like a regular job interview," said Harris. "Be sharp, showcase what you bring to the organization, and hopefully, you're the right guy for the team."
"In all reality, it is a job interview," said Appling. "Every workout I go into, I try to be the best possible person I can be, and perform to the best of my abilities.
"I wouldn't say (the pressure) bothers me because I have been playing basketball my whole life, so it just comes naturally to me," continued Appling. "As far as all the important people that are in the gym evaluating your every move, it adds a whole other element to the workout process. Up to this point, I can say every workout that I have been to has been nothing but fun."
They receive general feedback from the teams, but also understand that the organizations don't want to show their cards, both to the prospects and other teams. Go to virtually any sports web site and you are likely to find a mock draft. And while it's an inexact science, there is a little bit of a consensus about the trio's likely landing spots. Harris and Payne are potential lottery/mid-first round selections. Appling is looking to work his way into the second round. For example, Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com has Harris going at pick No. 11 to the Denver Nuggets, Payne going one pick later at No. 12 to the Orlando Magic, and Appling being selected by the Dallas Mavericks with pick No. 51.
Despite the anxiety, uncertainty and necessary business-like approach, the Spartans are also cognizant that they are on the verge of realizing their dreams.
"It's going to be a surreal feeling," said Harris of being selected in the NBA Draft. "From being little and always dreaming of playing in the NBA, and being able to hear your name called by the commissioner is definitely going to be a dream come true. I feel like these days are taking forever. I can't wait for it to finally be here."
"It's something that I've started dreaming about, and something that I've been looking forward to for so long," said Payne. "Now, being able to reach it, to know I'm going to get drafted and play in the NBA is a great and humbling experience.
"It seems like it's taken forever to get here, but in the blink of an eye, when I'm done with these workouts, it'll be right there."
Although Appling isn't projected to be selected as high, his dreams are no different.
"(Hearing my name called) would mean everything," said Appling. "I've been watching the draft since I was a little kid, so it would be a dream come true to hear my name called ... I'm excited and looking forward to what the future has in store for me."
Not lost on the former Spartans is the fact that playing college basketball at Michigan State has prepared them for their next step.
"Michigan State was the best two years of my life," said Harris. "It definitely got me ready for this, and I feel like I'm more prepared than most people, just from going through everything with Coach Izzo and being able to be a part of such a great program that not many people were fortunate enough to be a part of.
"I feel like the whole feel for the game, just the way we play, is kind of like a lot of NBA teams," continued Harris. "We didn't play any zone - we played strictly man. We had to know our principles. It did help that we ran a lot of plays because everyone is saying you've got to know thousands of plays, but we ran a lot of plays at Michigan State. I think the overall approach to basketball at Michigan State definitely got me ready."
"All of the things I'm going through in this process I have already been through at Michigan State," explained Appling. "It has made this whole thing a lot easier than it may have been if I went to any other university."
For Payne, the MSU experience helped shape him both on and off the court.
"It's prepared me very well, especially on the court being able to show the things I can do and be well-rounded," said Payne. "Off the court, it's helped me with the media and being able to deal with people and be a good person."
One of the bonuses that comes with the Michigan State experience is the great Spartan family. Spartan family means a lot of different things, but in this case it means a collection of former Spartans who have gone on to have success in the NBA, sharing their expertise with the latest crop of NBA hopefuls.
"The resources from the (former) players have been huge," said Harris. "I've talked to all those guys. I went out to eat with Jason Richardson when I was in Philly. Just the love and support that they've shown is a good feeling, especially for a young guy who's trying to follow in their footsteps. To have them be there for you to answer questions and give you the rundown of how everything goes is huge."
"I've talked to Steve Smith and he told me to go out there, have fun, and be yourself," said Appling. "That is one of the things I have tried to do."
Payne also mentioned that he's had several conversations with both Draymond Green and Jason Richardson. But just as valuable to him have been the talks he's had with his teammates who are currently sharing the process. They stay in regular contact and share the different experiences they have at each step along the way.
For Coach Izzo, this example of Spartan family in action is a prime example of what he looks to build his program around.
"There have been so many guys that have reached out. That's what it's all about for me," said Izzo. "That's what changes a good team into a good program. When it wasn't us facilitating that, it was even more important. Gary ran into J.R. (Jason Richardson) out in Philly and took him to dinner, barely knowing each other. That to me is special. I appreciate that from the guys of the past and I appreciate the guys of the present realizing they better listen to some of those guys that have been through the wars."
The reality of life in the NBA is that it is a job. As Coach Izzo routinely tells his players, life at Michigan State is Disney World compared to the real world. And while the NBA can be a very lucrative real world, the fact remains that it is a business. And one adjustment that players must make is that they are no longer surrounded by their Spartan brothers - the men with whom they have surrounded themselves for the last few years of their life.
"It's strange not being around the locker room with the guys, making jokes and dancing around," said Payne. "You don't get to see that every day, and you can miss it."
Izzo does have one piece of advice for his stars as they stand on the verge of changing their lives.
"Don't forget where you came from," he explained. "Those are humble guys. I think as Scott Skiles, Steve Smith and Magic (Earvin Johnson) have told me, there's money before and there's money after and fame before and fame after. I think if you can remember where you were and never get full of yourself, then I think you'll constantly get better, that more than anything.
"It doesn't just mean Michigan State. It means your family values. It means what you did early in your career to get where you are. Don't forget what it took to get you where you are, because it's going to take that and more to keep you where you are headed."
For all the ups and downs of the NBA Draft process, for all the anxiety and stress from the unknown future, these Spartans wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, they welcome the next step.
"My life's going to change," said Payne. "We think about that every day."
"There have been a lot of changes and it feels like it's all happened so fast," said Harris. "This is definitely a life-changing experience for me. This is going to hopefully change the rest of my life. It's something you have to embrace and enjoy, because it's going to go by really fast."